bell hooks – Ideas for Social Justice

bell hooks made significant contributions to the theory and practice of social justice. This blog post summarises three key concepts and provides a guide to her many writings as well as videos and audio of presentations and interviews.

bell hooks (1952-2021) chose this name, and styled it in lower-case, in an effort to focus attention on the substantive ideas within her writing, rather than her identity as an isolated individual. To situate those ideas, bell hooks drew on academic scholarship and popular culture as well as her relevant personal perspectives: especially as a Black woman living in America; as an educator and activist; and as the first in her family to gain a university education.

Many of the ideas articulated by bell hooks have resonated widely. Of these, my reflection focuses on her contributions to three concepts that have been influential in social justice movements:

  • Intersecting structures of power
  • Practising love, a verb, is a pathway to justice
  • Teaching/learning as activism

To help contextualise the broader impact of these and other ideas within bell hooks’ 40+ books and other writings, I’ve included a selection of additional resources, sorted by type:

  • Resource collections featuring bell hooks
  • Presentations, interviews, & conversations
  • Additional references

But first, a sample of memorials to honour the range and depth of appreciation for bell hooks’ contributions to social justice movements:

Exploring bell hooks’ contributions to three social justice concepts

Intersecting structures of power

bell hooks often wrote about how race, class, capitalism, and gender function together as interdependent power-structures. This included developing an influential analysis of how these interlocking power structures converge to produce and perpetuate the dominance of imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-heteropatriarchy.

Fundamentally, if we are only committed to an improvement in that politic of domination that we feel leads directly to our individual exploitation or oppression, we not only remain attached to the status quo but act in complicity with it, nurturing and maintaining those very systems of domination. Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle. – Love as the Practice of Freedom, in Outlaw Culture, 1994

As part of this approach, bell hooks challenged assumptions within second-wave feminism (~1960s – 1980s) that focused on patriarchy as isolated from, or as a foundation for, other forms of oppression. In doing so, she helped create space to explore the challenges of navigating power structures that are relational depending on where we are each located within the dynamic matrix of class, race, and gender.

Imagine living in a world where we can all be who we are, a world of peace and possibility. Feminist revolution alone will not create such a world; we need to end racism, class elitism, imperialism. – Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, 2000

This approach was influential, with many of the ideas she articulated further developed by those examining, and agitating against, interdependent oppressive structures – debates that paved the way for intersectional feminism. For instance, bell hooks frequently detailed examples of overlapping identities uniquely impacted by multiple systems of oppression in ways that resemble the concept of intersectionality as articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Meanwhile, bell hooks also drew attention to the historical contingencies of instances of oppressive structures in specific local situations. This approach highlights our collective responsibility for challenging the interconnected structures of power these local instances each perpetuate. Building on bell hooks ideas offers avenues for accepting this responsibility and helping to build new pathways forward.

For examples of bell hooks writings that explore these interconnected structures of power, see:

  • Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism1981 (2nd edition, 2015)
  • Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center1984 (2nd edition, 2000; 3rd edition, 2014)
  • Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black1989 (2nd edition, 2015)
  • Where We Stand: Class Matters2000
  • Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice2013

For additional reflections on this aspect of bell hooks’ contributions, see:

Practising love, as a verb, is a pathway to justice

bell hooks also helped to articulate the notion of love as a verb — a concept that shifts attention away from love as an abstract sentiment and onto the concrete manifestation of will demonstrated by intentional actions (such as care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust).

For bell hooks, love is an act of a transformative labour that offers an important pathway for communities surviving and challenging the imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-heteropatriarchysystems of oppression.

Acknowledging the truth of our reality, both individual and collective, is a necessary stage for personal and political growth. This is usually the most painful stage in the process of learning to love. – Love as the Practice of Freedom, in Outlaw Culture, 1994

This approach presents love as an act of communion with the world rather than between individuals alone. Drawing inspiration from Martin Luther King and others, bell hooks rejected the comodification of love as the passive indulgences of isolated romances.

To love well is the task in all meaningful relationships, not just romantic bonds. – All About Love: New Visions, 1999

Building on this, bell hooks helped to articulate how the work of cultivating love can be transformative for both individuals and communities. With this insistent theorising of love, bell hooks helped resist the dismissal of love as ‘too soft’ a topic for serious scholars – opening up space to examine the central role of love in almost every political question.

bell hooks exploration of the transformative power of love for communities has been particularly influential within social justice movements. For instance, her ideas are frequently referenced within activist resource lists, such as in efforts to develop transformative justice practices and community-led design.

For examples of bell hooks explorations of the concept of love as a verb, see:

  • Sisters of the Yam 1993
  • Love as the Practice of Freedom – in Outlaw Culture1994; (2nd edition, 2006)
  • Homemade Love – one of bell hooks’ children books, illustrated by Shane W Evans, 2017
  • All About Love 2000
  • Salvation: Black People and Love2001

For some additional reflections on bell hooks’ account of love as a pathway to justice, see:

Teaching/learning as activism

According to bell hooks, teaching should be an engaged practice that empowers critical thinking and enhances community connection.

Viewed in this way, teaching and learning become revolutionary acts that position classrooms as sites of mutual participation that cultivates joyful transformations (for students and teachers alike).

As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence. – Teaching to Transgress, 1994

While initially focusing on tertiary education, bell hooks’ explorations of the activist potential of teaching practices extended to all educational activities – not just those occurring within educational institutions, but also teaching/learning within our communities more broadly. Combined with her ideas on love as a pathway to justice, this view positions teaching/learning an important way of contributing to our collective liberation from intersecting oppressive systems.

Along with others, such as Paolo Freire, Frantz Fanon, and Audre Lorde, bell hooks’ ideas about the transformative potential of engaged teaching helped to establish the field of radical pedagogy – which, in turn, contributed to respectfully engaged teaching practices, variously known as participatory teaching, active learning, progressive education, etc.

Education as the practice of freedom affirms healthy self esteem in students as it promotes their capacity to be aware and live consciously. It teaches them to reflect and act in ways that further self-actualization, rather than conformity to the status quo. – Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, 2003

The following books offer some of bell hook’s explorations into the details of how and why the practice of teaching can, and should, be treated as a form of activism.

  • Theory as Liberatory Practice1991
  • Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom1994
  • Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope2003
  • Teaching Critical Thinking2009

For some further reflections on bell hooks’ ideas about teaching, see:

Contextualising bell hooks’ contributions

Resource collections featuring bell hooks

Presentations, interviews, & conversations

Additional references